PFC LaVena Johnson
It's not easy to shock me anymore, but during a recent a conversation with a former female Marine about military rape, I received the shock of my life when she adamantly stated: "Military rapes are few and far between, and most of these bitches are filing false charges."
Whoa. It's not that I don't believe false charges are sometimes levied. But to say that rapes are few and far between demonstrates the deep-seated denial currently in place. As her words sank in, I suddenly felt my face grow hot, and the distinct image of Pfc. LaVena Johnson's raped and bloodied body surfaced in my mind.
Pfc. Johnson had been in Iraq for six weeks when her dead body was found inside of her tent in July 2005. The autopsy report received by the family from Army CID raised more questions than answers, so her parents, Dr. John Johnson and his wife Linda requested photographs of the death scene. Their suspicions were confirmed when the photos revealed severe injuries such as a broken nose, blackened eye, loose teeth, burns from a corrosive chemical on her genitals, and a gunshot wound to the head. Despite the strange array of injuries, the Army has remained steadfast in its determination that Johnson committed suicide.
Since that time, the Johnson's have attempted to move heaven and earth to get her death reinvestigated by the Army. When that didn't work, they put together their own team of experts. And guess what? It is their opinion that before Pfc. Johnson was murdered, she was raped.
I've known about PFC Johnson's case for a long time. When I started the organization Military Families for Justice along with retired Lt. Colonel Tracy Shue, widow of Colonel Philip Shue USAF, and Kimberly Stahlman, widow of Colonel Michael Stahlman USMC, LaVena's was the first case we featured on our website. Over the years, we have witnessed people turn a blind-eye to the story. So much so, that we've often wondered if LaVena's case would be taken seriously if she were not African-American.
We talk about it often, and every time, the conversation inevitably turns to the movie adaptation of John Grisham's book, A Time to Kill. If you've never seen the movie, a black man kills the white men who raped his little girl. There is a scene when the defense attorney, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, is giving his closing argument and asks the jury to close their eyes while he describes the brutal rape of his clients little girl. As he guides their imaginations through the horrific, prolonged attack, quiet tears start rolling down their faces. He repeatedly asks "Can you see her?" And just about the time their minds are fully immersed in the raw brutality of what happened to this young black girl, he abruptly switches tactics and tells them to "imagine she is white." This leaves the all-white jury aghast and shocked; emotions they had not expressed when imagining the victim as black. In their minds, it had not been quite as horrible while they pictured a little black girl being raped and beaten.
Despite a considerable amount of media coverage, including a LA Times article by investigative reporter David Zucchino, the Johnson's have not received even a modicum of justice in LaVena's death and I cannot understand why. What's the harm in reopening the investigation? Is it really because -- dare I say -- LaVena is black? The Johnson's have never played the race card in their quest. But I am willing to pull that card. I can't help but wonder if the military investigators and politicians in Washington D.C. would be so blind if she had white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. I suppose this is a question best left to them and their conscious.
Recently, there has been some rumblings of hope as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to improve the military justice system for rape victims. The problem with this initiative is that it only helps those who are alive and able to speak for themselves. While this could be triumphant for sexual assault victims, it does nothing for alleged victims like LaVena. And how could it? As far as the military system of justice is concerned, LaVena killed herself, and since her family has no independent unbiased forum in which to have their own evidence judged that's the way it will remain.
The answer to this problem may lie in The Bill of Rights for Bereaved Military Families. It's an idea Military Families for Justice has been trying to get introduced to Congress. If adopted, it would provide the independent forum families like the Johnson's need. The concept of giving rights to military families is not new; the United Kingdom already has something very similar in place under its Military Covenant that extends to a service members family, allowing them to speak for the deceased. So why can't the United States do this? The point is not to prove the military right or wrong, its purpose is simply to seek the truth, whatever that may be. We have made many calls to both Senator Gillibrand as well as her co-sponsor Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine). A representative from Collins' office did show genuine interest in the idea and as of this writing we are waiting for their next call. Time will tell.
In the meantime, the dignified determination of the Johnson family soldiers on. Sometimes I wonder how they keep from mentally snapping just like the fictional father in Grisham's story, but they remain dauntless. An example of their courage is visible in the 2010 Midtown Films documentary The Silent Truth. The film deals with the subject of military rape and how it has been swept under the rug for too long. It also reveals the trauma a family endures by simply asking for logical proof. In the film, I was awestruck by Dr. Johnson's fierce love for his daughter as he delivered a warning to the military:
My daughter was beaten, raped, murdered, set on fire and then tried to burn her tent down with her body in it; and your evidence says that. So it will be a cold day in hell before I stop, and I mean that with all my heart.
It is an assault on the very fabric of our nation to ignore the pain, injustice and pleas for help from members of our Armed Services and their families. If you don't believe these tragedies are occurring, open your eyes and look at LaVena.